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What Is an “Independent Film” in 2013?

In all the hubbub over the Oscars on Sunday night, we didn’t get a chance to say much about the weekend’s other big movie awards ceremony: the Independent Spirit Awards, held the previous evening. As usual, it was a chance to spotlight little movies that weren’t going to get attention the next night — movies like, um, Silver Linings Playbook, which won four awards for Best Director, Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and Best Female Lead. Coincidentally enough, Silver Linings Playbook was up for the equivalent of those same four awards (and four more) at the Academy Awards. Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress at both. Yay, independence!

JENNIFER LAWRENCE and BRADLEY COOPER star in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Of course, the idea that Silver Linings Playbook is an “independent film” in the same way as, say, Beasts of the Southern Wild or Middle of Nowhere is patently ridiculous. This was a $21 million movie starring Katniss Everdeen, People’s Sexiest Man Alive, and Robert Freaking De Niro. It was already up for eight Oscars; what was it doing Hoovering up a bunch of Spirits too? If something like Silver Linings qualifies as an indie, then what, exactly, doesn’t?

According to the Spirit Awards’ rules and regulations, the qualifications for inclusion are that a film runs at least 70 minutes, has either played a week in theaters or screened at one of six key festivals, and has a total budget of less than $20 million. (Guess the nominating committee called an audible over that last million.) Nowhere does it indicate that the film must be released by an indie distributor, which is how Matthew McConaughey won Best Supporting Male for the Warner Brothers release Magic Mike (“the bleak arthouse drama from noted outsider director Steven Soderbergh,” notes the AV Club, “that bravely gambled on its small audience of cineastes gravitating toward the grim symbolism of watching physically fit men take off their shirts”).

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So what does “independent film” even mean anymore? Independent of what? For some time now, the label has been about as meaningless as “alternative music” (alternative to what?). Even a film like Beasts, which would seem the very definition of an indie (low budget, novice actors, young director) has studio money behind it; after Sundance, it was swept up for distribution by Fox’s boutique division, Fox Searchlight, which spent some of Rupert Murdoch’s money to not only advertise the picture, but campaign for its Spirit and Oscar nominations.

The lines have been blurry for a good long while now. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Pulp Fiction, whose astonishing commercial success (following that of Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape five years earlier) confirmed that independent movies didn’t just have to be critic-bait; they could be immensely profitable as well. Major studios started buying up indie distributors (as Disney had with Pulp Fiction’s Miramax), or creating their own specialty divisions in-house.

As a result, “indie” became less of a distinction and more of a label — a way of classifying, and marketing, what was merely another tier of standard operating procedure. And that’s what it looked like on Saturday night. There’s no question that Silver Linings Playbook is a very good movie — it deftly traverses the tricky line between comedy and drama, treats mental illness seriously, has a satisfying ending that doesn’t feel like hackwork, and features some of the year’s best acting. But, despite the Weinstein Company imprimatur and the $20 million(ish) price tag, it’s not an indie. The Independent Spirit Awards might want to reconsider their qualifications, because right now, they’re just part of the Indie Marketing Machine. If they’re not careful, they’re gonna end up as much a forgone conclusion as the Oscars — and recognizing all the same movies.

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